According to the Laws of Moses and All Israel

December 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

A little while back, I had a conversation on Facebook with a friend of mine that lasted for most of a week. He and I went to elementary school together; his father was one of my math teachers in high school. He is a fundamentalist Christian; from his perspective, in the Bible the narrative of Adam and Eve teaches us that marriage should only be defined as one man and one woman.

I am not intending to discuss here the political or social aspects of single-gender marriage, or debate whether it is a good idea or not. Rather, I would like to focus more narrowly on the Biblical question: Specifically, is my friend’s view correct? Does the Hebrew Bible solely advocate a one-man/one-woman love match?

Based on my studies of the Bible, I think that he is quite wrong. Tonight I would like to explain why.

In this week’s Torah portion, in the midst of the Joseph story, we hear of Judah and his three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah arranges for his oldest son to marry Tamar. When he dies because he has displeased the Lord, Judah arranges for Tamar to marry the second son, Onan. And he, too, dies for the same reason: As the text states directly, he also displeased the Lord.

By the logic of the Biblical culture in which Tamar lives, she should then marry the third son, who would provide her with the male heir to her dead husband’s estate. She needs this heir to be properly cared for in her old age. This arrangement, called a ‘levirate marriage’ also figures prominently in the story of Ruth. After the woman produces an heir, the pair never engages in relations again.

But, when the time comes for Tamar to marry the third son, Judah balks. He withholds his youngest son, sending her back to her father’s home with a vague promise that he will arrange the marriage when his son is older. But he never gets around to doing so. Perhaps he thinks that she is killing the sons; perhaps he believes that she is bad luck; perhaps his youngest son has begged him not to go through with it. So he continues to stall.

Judah’s other option, of course is to release her from his family. That is, he can cut her free from the obligation to marry the youngest son, so that she might marry someone else. The ritual for that release involves the removal of a sandal and making a declaration in front of the elders at the gate. But that is a dishonorable thing to do in his culture, because it means that his first son, her first husband, will never have an heir. That particular outcome is in fact so unwelcome that it is used as a curse: May you die without heirs.

Stuck, Judah does nothing: He condemns her to the lengthy wait and denies her the ability to move forward with her life.

But Tamar is not one to wait. She tricks him by wearing a veil and pretending to be a woman of ill repute. And when he falls for the trick, she takes his rod and staff as pledge for payment, and then disappears.

Months later, the fruit of her deception becomes known: Word gets back to Judah that Tamar is pregnant. Indignant (and perhaps relieved that he may be rid of her) he demands that she be burned. She was promised to his third son – it was an engagement, after all – and her pregnancy during this period of engagement qualifies as adultery.

But when she appears, she provides him with his rod and staff, and explains that the owner of these items is the father of the child. At that point, seeing his own symbols of power handed back to him, he exclaims, “She is more righteous than I.”

Why does he say that? Filtered through our modern lens, we assume that his declaration has to do with his own infidelity.

But in context, the real infidelity is his unwillingness to allow her to provide an heir for his first son. This question of lineage is of paramount concern to the Biblical writer, and Judah simply has not provided sufficient attention to his family’s line. Tamar understands this situation much better than he does. She also realizes that Judah himself is also able to fulfill the duty of providing an heir, and sets a process in motion by which that might happen.

And here we see one of the ways marriage has changed since the time of the Bible: Tamar had indeed operated within the bounds of the Biblical law. Her actions were not only legally acceptable, but also morally appropriate in the context of her culture.

And she is not the only one in the Biblical narrative to engage in this kind of levirate marriage arrangement, achieved through less-than-obvious means. In the story of Ruth, for example, we see a similar kind of situation; when Ruth is in need of a levirate marriage, she creeps in quietly in the darkness of night to lay herself down and cover herself with the cloak of Boaz as he sleeps on the threshing-room floor. He is the man who can redeem her and provide her with a much-needed heir to support her and her former mother-in-law Naomi. After their encounter, he fills her apron with grain, and she waddles home to Naomi with a rounded belly, an apron full of seed.

Marriage in the Biblical context is a legal and economic agreement, for the purposes of securing the orderly transition of land from one generation to the next, and for the purposes of seeing to it that all grown women are assigned to a man’s care. You don’t want it to happen that a widow is vulnerable to being cut loose from the estate without any means of support. Loose women, after all, are trouble.

In the case of Ruth, the narrative bestows upon her a very high honor: she gives birth to a son, who in turn becomes part of the lineage of the house of David.

In the case of Tamar, the narrative bestows upon her an even higher honor: she gives birth to twin sons. And one of those sons, in turn, becomes the other grandfather in the lineage of the house of David.

In other words, the Biblical world actually approves of their illicit affairs – a situation that is a far cry from the one-man/one-woman life pairing that the Bible is supposed to be teaching us. The institution of marriage has indeed changed since the time of the Bible.

Our current understanding of marriage – the idea that it is created on the basis of a love match between two people who share their hopes and dreams together, who build a life on the basis of mutual respect – that particular concept of the nuptial union is entirely foreign to the Biblical world.

That is not to say that the people of the time of the Bible were indifferent to love. To the contrary, the union of Isaac and Rebecca is an example of how it might be possible to create a marriage out of two people who are very much in love.

But recall also that their marriage was arranged even before they had met.

Recall also that their son Jacob married two sisters who were also rivals. In his household, the sisters engaged in a protracted baby war, using concubines and their own fertility as weapons in the struggle for dominance. And Jacob went along for the ride.

Our idea of romantic love has its roots in the medieval period. Prior to that point, marriages were made on the basis of a negotiation between two men; in the Biblical world, that negotiation would take place between the potential suitor or his representative and the girl’s father or brother. I say ‘girl’ because marriages were arranged young, just at the point that the girl is able to bear children herself.

And marriage could even be arranged in the wake of violence – such as when a man took a woman as a captive – in order to see to it that she was not cast aside after he had damaged her reputation. The father or brothers might then negotiate with her captor to arrange for her marriage, to provide for her future. They might then overlook the fact that he had done violence to her. He could indeed marry her against her will.

Marriage, in that time and place, established who had responsibility for whom. Its rules saw to it that no one should be left out in the cold. It saw to it that widows had a way to gain title to the land, and that every child could be assigned to a specific household. It also arranged for the woman to be given a significant sum of money if she were to be divorced. The people of the Biblical world accomplished this set of goals in a very public way, in a formal ritual before the elders at the gate, so that none of it could be disputed. For those cases that would fall through the cracks, they had the Biblical decree that you must care for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan. No one should be left on the streets.

Marriage was one ritual among many that established who was responsible for whom.

So, yes, I am indeed happy that our definition of marriage has changed; I am not so sure I would have wanted my brother to be in charge of my dowry. And I have indeed found a loving partner in my husband. And I am rather glad that I do not have to share him with another wife.

But beyond the question of marriage, there is something else of great interest here in our weekly portion: Much of the narrative of Judah and Tamar invokes imagery of seeing/not-seeing, of being veiled and of being revealed, of the appearance of reality and of the reality of appearance. Even the location of the action – Petach Enayim – means ‘the opening of the eyes.’

Up until Judah’s declaration, he had not thought of Tamar as a person in her own right. She was a problem to be resolved, just another one of the many people under his care. He does not ‘see’ her. He is not aware of the burden of waiting, of the suppression of desire that she must endure, of the uncertainty of her future. Her full reality – the lived experience of her life – has no meaning to him.

It was not until she confronted him with the tangible evidence of his not-seeing-her that he realizes his blindness: She has achieved something of great value to him without his cooperation. She wears a veil before her eyes, yet he is the one that does not see; he is the one who may go out and visit the wide open places, yet she, cloistered in her tent, is the one with the foresight to see what is on the horizon.

The experience of the one who is suppressed – in this case, the woman who has no power in her own right – is not visible to the one who controls the situation. He is not able to see the effects of his decisions (or lack of decision) on her daily life, and he is not able (at least at the outset) to feel empathy for her plight. All is well in his world; why would it not also be so in hers?

But sometimes what is most needed in order to effect change is the tangible proof of oppression. In this narrative, Judah suddenly ‘sees’ her, in her full humanity, and renounces his power over her life, and frees her.

In that sense, the story of Tamar offers the hope that the force of the dominant power might suddenly give way to genuine understanding. What was once invisible is now seen. Not just seen, but acknowledged as fully human and fully righteous, and deserving of care and concern.

So, we should ask ourselves: Who are the veiled ones in our community, the persons who are not fully seen? Whom in our society do we treat as if they were one more problem to be solved rather than persons deserving of empathy and respect.

In other words, despite all of the condemnations of same-gender relations in the Bible, and despite the historically-inaccurate claim that the Bible only supports a one-man/one-woman view of marriage, I think that a much stronger case can be made that the Bible fundamentally cares about the needs of the silent, the invisible, and the oppressed. In my view, the Bible advocates that we see the silent suffering and respond to their distress.

I do believe that the Bible is divinely revealed, but not for the usual reasons. The Bible is deeper, wilder, and stranger than we might suspect. It loves contradictions, seeks out tensions, and resists our desire to collapse it into neat categories. Where we might want to write a nicer, smoother account of humanity, it is aware of our full range of existence. It can certainly be misused, but I cannot shake the sense that it is the truest word of God when it tells us: Do not hurt one another. You should know the heart of the stranger; you, too, have been found hurting and strange. Empathize and respond.

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§ One Response to According to the Laws of Moses and All Israel

  • Lee says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful and insightful look at a controversial topic. (Aren’t male-female relations always controversial?)

    What I find particularly refreshing in your thoughts is the drawing of conclusions based on what the Bible story actually says, and the character of its peoples and cultures as expressed in the story itself, rather than some externally imposed framework to which the Bible is supposed to conform.

    Put that together with your willingness to see the Bible in the context of its own cultures, while recognizing that cultures move on, and we can continue moving forward in our own cultural and spiritual development today, without feeling that we have to be tied to the cultural norms of Bible times, and my enjoyment of your piece is complete.

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